I was recently in an email exchange with a thoughtful new reader. He liked our flyers, but said: "My main disagreement comes from a belief that people do not make revolutions until they have no other choice. I expect conditions to come to that in this country, but I do not see conditions being anything near that point now....I don't think revolution is anywhere near being a winning plan at this time in history in the US..."
There are two important questions here. One, is it true that people only make
revolutions "when they have no other choice?" Two, does revolution
make sense as the goal and strategy of a movement?
REVOLUTIONS ARE BUILT ON HOPE
There is abundant evidence to show that revolutions are not based on despair. Just look at recent history. The world revolutionary upsurge of the 1960s did not come at a time when people "had no other choice." Far from it. Most of the dozens of countries that witnessed outbreaks of mass revolutionary activity were at the height of their post-WWII prosperity in 1968 and in the early 1970s. In the United States rank-and-file working people were in far better shape economically in those years, and yet in 1970 they executed the largest wildcat strike wave in U.S. history, and engaged in more strikes of any sort, authorized and unauthorized, in 1970-71 than any other year in the U.S. except 1946.
Perhaps the best refutation of the idea that people only revolt when they have no other choice is the May '68 revolt in France. French working people in 1968 were enjoying unprecedented prosperity. Consumer items long available to Americans had just become plentiful for the French. Yet 10 million French workers occupied their factories and offices for ten days. They took over local government with neighborhood committees in cities and towns around France. They came nearer than anyone before or since to making a revolution in modern industrial society.
There is no direct relationship between economic conditions and revolution.
Working people make revolutions when enough people see that the values of our
class are the salvation of the world.
A STRATEGY THAT MAKES SENSE
Building a revolutionary movement means deciding that we are going to win the class war. Only a revolutionary movement can inspire people with hope of real change. Fighting for anything less than victory just doesn't make sense. A movement that is not revolutionary can never solve our problems because it can never get at their roots. Even if such a movement could win major reforms - say, free health care for all - it could never get at the basic problem.
Humans are social beings. We need each other and want naturally to support each other from generation to generation. But we live in a society dominated by an elite which can only maintain its power by attacking those things about us which are most human: our understanding of ourselves and other people and our relationships with them. Nothing threatens the elite like working class solidarity. The attack on human relations is the fundamental problem in capitalist society, and it can only be solved by revolution and real democracy.
A revolutionary movement will unleash the energy and creativity and power that lie trapped within millions of ordinary people who have seen no other cause that could truly engage them. As the movement grows, people's sense of their abilities and what society could be like will grow with it. In a society which seeks to divide us from each other and kill our spirit, people building the revolution will find their moral and intellectual and emotional sides fully supported and engaged with other human beings.
Fighting for revolution means we can finally take the offensive. Instead of trying to stop another budget cut or another war, or fighting for a "lesser evil" candidate or a few fewer hours a week at a boring job or a little less environmental destruction, we can fight to overthrow the elite and create what we really want: a new world, without rank and privilege, without rich and poor, where wealth and work and leisure are shared by all. In such a world, there would not be millions working themselves to exhaustion while others go jobless, or a few with unimaginable wealth while millions have nothing. We would not be forced to choose between "Saving Jobs" or "Saving Trees." We would not despoil the earth in the name of Progress.
Any movement that does not have revolution as its goal is saying in effect that capitalism is the best possible world. It must accept capitalism as permanent and legitimate. Any such movement will sooner or later be making deals with the devil. It has no other choice.
A movement that is not fighting the system very quickly becomes its enforcer. Isn't this what happened to the labor movement? The AFL and CIO unions went very quickly from fighting on behalf of their members within a capitalist system to managing their members on behalf of the system.
Only a revolutionary movement can be truly democratic and truly rely on working people. Non-revolutionary movements always mimic the top-down relationships of the elite to other people, and they always suppress the revolutionary aspirations of their members; the leaders manage people's expectations so that people never expect more than the movement's leaders can deliver.
Fighting for a new world cuts through artificial divisions of gender and race and nationality, and allows us to unite around our deepest shared values and aspirations for a world based on commitment to each other.
Fighting for a new world gives us workable measures of success for building a long-term movement, and gives us the perspective that makes a long-term movement sustainable. Our measure of success is not victory or defeat on this or that issue, but how well we have built the size and solidarity and consciousness of the revolutionary movement along every step of the way. Our perspective comes from understanding the place of our movement in time and space - in the history of human aspirations shared by ordinary people in every part of the globe.
Fighting for revolution allows and demands that we abandon petty concerns and narrow issues and think big. Revolution forces us to try to understand the whole world and to imagine a new one. As we explore the inter-relatedness of the problems which we face, we can begin to understand all the many human interconnections which will provide the solution.
A truly revolutionary movement will touch people's deepest desires and encompass their highest dreams. It will be an unstoppable force.
Originally published in New Democracy Newsletter, March-April 1998.